England's cricketers frolicked in torrential rain and their hotel swimming pool last night when they were not being instructed to take a slightly less pleasurable dip in the revitalising ice-bath that continues to follow them around Sri Lanka. The sight of the players having such fun was reassuring, but it would be fair to say that the mood of the team would not have been quite so upbeat had Stephen Harmison not taken two important wickets in the post-tea session, wickets that reduced Sri Lanka to 147 for 4 before bad light and rain ended play on the opening day of the decisive third Test.
In the 56 balls delivered immediately after the interval Harmison claimed the vital wickets of Kumar Sangakkara, when he top-edged a lazy pull to Monty Panesar at deep square-leg, and Chamara Silva, who edged a superb delivery to Ian Bell at slip. Sri Lanka added just eight runs during the period of play.
At any other venue each team would have some idea of who had had the better day and where the initiative in the Test lay. But, on a pitch that has had no cricket of note played on it since the tsunami rolled in three years ago, it is extremely difficult to judge who is on top.
Before Harmison's late double strike it had been Sri Lanka's day. In difficult conditions Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene had made England's bowlers toil under a hot sun and in debilitating humidity, adding 88 for the third wicket. The pair appeared at ease in conditions that had initially offered England's bowlers swing, seam and spin movement, along with occasional steep bounce.
Michael Vaughan would have been expecting more from his attack after inviting Sri Lanka to bat first when play began two hours later than scheduled. Ryan Sidebottom swung the ball like a boomerang in his opening overs and a fit-again Matthew Hoggard was hitting the right part of the pitch. Batting was difficult, but Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandort left the ball alone whenever they could. Each drove pleasant boundaries down the ground, much to the delight of the large crowd attending The Galle International Cricket Stadium for the first time in four years.
The mood of the Sri Lankan fans improved further when Paul Collingwood dropped Tharanga at second slip on 15 off Harmison's fourth ball of the day. It was a simple catch and it allowed Sri Lanka to move nonchalantly on to 34 without loss in 10 overs of play.
Then, with the first ball after the drink interval, Sidebottom struck. Vandort is a tall man and the ball hit him above the knee-roll of his right pad. He looked horrified to see umpire Asad Rauf give him out lbw. Vandort's disbelief was understandable; replays indicated that the ball would have travelled several inches over the top of leg stump.
The dismissal was closely followed by a huge appeal for caught behind against Sangakkara off Hoggard. Replays suggested the ball had feathered the edge of the left-hander's bat.
There are players that would be affected by such an incident but Sangakkara is not one of them. He is as tough as old boots and when the chirping starts there are few with a sharper tongue.
England did not have to wait long for their next break. In the next over Rauf gave Tharanga out lbw when he should not have, to a ball that pitched outside leg-stump. The man England wanted most had escaped, but on incorrect umpiring decisions they were 2-1 in the lead.
The failure to dismiss Sangakkara unsettled England, who lost their composure with the ball and conceded 34 runs in the next four and a half overs. Sangakkara was the main benefactor, but Jayawardene prospered too, striking three boundaries before lunch.
England failed to get the initiative back between lunch and tea as Sangakkara and Jayawardene blunted the tourists' tiring attack. Panesar spun the ball sharply in his opening over, but after that he caused little alarm.
Hoggard bowled his cutters, Harmison banged the ball in and Sidebottom pitched it up trying to make it swing, but each failed to make the batsmen play at as many deliveries as they should. In the past England bowlers would have felt at home in these conditions, with the exception of heat and humidity. Spinners would have chipped away at one end while medium-pacers chugged away on a good length at the other. Edges and lbws would eventually have come. But England bowlers are no longer used to bowling in English-type conditions. Their careers are spent hammering away on dry, hard, essentially unhelpful surfaces where the ball needs to be kept off the drive of a batsman's bat. Here, though, the bowling needed to be full and straight, but too often it was not. England will hope the pitch gets better before it starts to deteriorate, but quite often surfaces like this are best for batting on the first and second day.
The weather will ultimately determine whether England are given enough time to win and level the series. Unlike three years ago, the gods were kind on Galle yesterday. A heavy thunderstorm somehow missed the ground last night and dark clouds passed either side of it for much of the first day. England will hope such fortune continues.
Scoreboard from Galle
First day: England won the toss and elected to field
Sri Lanka First Innings
M G Vandort lbw b Sidebottom 18
50 min, 33 balls, 2 fours
W U Tharanga lbw b Harmison 16
73 min, 42 balls, 2 fours
K C Sangakkara c Panesar b Harmison 46
150 min, 95 balls, 7 fours
*D P M D Jayawardene not out 51
176 min, 129 balls, 6 fours
L P C Silva c Bell b Harmison 1
37 min, 26 balls
T M Dilshan not out 7
10 min, 5 balls, 1 four
Extras (b0, lb7, w1, nb0) 8
Total (4 wkts, 250 min, 55 overs) 147
Fall: 1-34 (Vandort), 2-44 (Tharanga), 3-132 (Sangakkara), 4-138 (Silva).
To bat: +H A P W Jayawardene, W P U C J Vaas, S L Malinga, U W M B C A Welegedara, M Muralitharan.
Bowling: Sidebottom 15-4-33-1 (6-1-15-1 1-0-7-0 8-3-11-0), Hoggard 13-3-48-0 (4-2-17-0 3-0-14-0 6-1-17-0), Harmison 13-2-28-3 (1-0-2-0 3-0-13-1 4-0-9-0 5-2-4-2), Panesar 11-1-25-0 (10-1-18-0 1-0-7-0), Bopara 2-0-6-0, Collingwood 1-1-0-0 (one spell each).
Progress: First day: start delayed until 12.01pm due to a damp pitch and outfield. 50: 80 min, 15.5 overs. Lunch: 71-2 (Sangakkara 21, DPMD Jayawardene 12) 18 overs. 100: 136 min, 30.1 overs. Tea: 132-2 (Sangakkara 46, DPMD Jayawardene 45) 44 overs. Bad light stopped play: 5.13pm.
Jayawardene's 50: 171 min, 127 balls, 6 fours.
England: A N Cook, *M P Vaughan, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, R S Bopara, +M J Prior, R J Sidebottom, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pak) and D J Harper (Aus).
TV replay umpire: E A R de Silva
Match referee: J J Crowe.